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'Hell on Wheels' Is Both a Tactical Homage to the Western Genre and a Postmodern Pastiche

Garret Castleberry
Anson Mount in Hell on Wheels (2011)

Doc Durant (Colm Meaney) embodies a harbinger that darkly foreshadows the shape of the American political landscape and a post-truth Presidency.

Hell on Wheels: The Complete Series

Distributor: Sony
Cast: Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Robin McLeavy
Network: AMC
Release date: 2016-11-01

Hell on Wheels (2011-2016) (now on Blu-ray) can best be described as a gritty period western centered on the treacherous Westward Expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Hell on Wheels owes a lot of its grim exterior and anti-western cynicism to HBO’s Deadwood, the post-Sopranos drama that beat the AMC series by seven years, but ultimately lost in the race to complete its final narrative arc. What Hell on Wheels lacks in the HBO cabler’s “adults only” gratuity, it makes up for in character anguish, mythologization of the American work ethic, and a painful meditation on the history of social, cultural, and gender politics in the Old West.

Re-Mythologizing the American West

Hell on Wheels tells the tale of Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a conflicted Son of the South, embittered by civil war and the loss of his family at the hands of cutthroat Union soldiers. If the central plot sounds familiar, it pays more than a little homage to Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Cullen converges into this despot transient landscape alongside Elam Ferguson (Common), a biracial ex-slave who symbolizes the liminal role of mixed-race isolation both from the black and white community. Actor-musician Common invests himself into his role and effectively taps into the pain and alienation experienced in post-Civil War racial politics of the day, while clearly identifying and wrestling with ongoing struggles in contemporary culture. Elam’s eventual rise to law enforcer updates a serious twist on Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart in Mel Brooks’ classic parody Blazing Saddles. In industry terms, Blazing Saddles represented a cultural turning point for the Western genre, as the genre’s tropes and conventions had grown weary and exhausted through decades of repetition. Fortunately for Hell on Wheels, the writing staff avoided any such turns (or musical episodes) that might belie the series into shark jumping territory.

Actor Colm Meaney rounds out the Hell on Wheels cast as real-life railroad mogul Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant. Meaney embodies pure greed as a cutthroat capitalist scamming the government to line his pockets as he elongates the railroad as much as possible. Meaney’s performance seems too dastardly to believe, and indeed the audience may find his amoral role a convergence between progress and exploitation, a haunting harbinger for crooked financial systems in America. When the series aired, Doc Durant overtly stood in for the greedy bank swindler, a stock western character, while covertly personifying Wall Street corruption that helped steer the US into the Great Recession, circa 2008. But upon viewing this series in retrospect through the upside down lens of 2016, Durant further embodies a harbinger that darkly foreshadows the shape of the American political landscape and a post-truth Presidency.

Just as Durant often eludes his comeuppance to the point of sentimental comic relief, an anarchic voice of chaos slowly emerges through the character Thor Gunderson (Christopher Heyerdahl), better known as “The Swede”. The Swede comes to represent the chief antagonist to Cullen by series end, a deviant foe that embraces dark oppositional qualities. I avoid heavy plot description for readers unfamiliar with the series, but suffice to say, The Swede helps initiate what can easily be interpreted as a post-apocalyptic climax to the idyllic western form by mid-series. Other notable casting calls that draw upon real-life inspirations include the tattoo-faced prostitute turn pioneer woman Eva (Robin McLeavy), entrepreneurial Irish immigrant brothers Mickey and Sean McGinnes (Phil Burke and Ben Esler), land surveyor widow Lily Bell (Dominique McElligott), labor camp ex-slave Psalms (Dohn Norwood), reformed preacher’s daughter Ruth Cole (Kasha Kropinski) and her troublesome father Reverend Cole (Tom Noonan). Future characters come and go, and one of the more controversial yet effective strategies by the writing staff is allowing characters to enter and exit the series abruptly in efforts to legitimize western hardship and fluidity of tragic lifestyles in and around the railroad and western expansion.

Imitations and Inventions to an Iconic Film Genre

Throughout the series, character arcs and story beats play within the varying genre tropes and conventions that comprise the American Western genre. This could be interpreted as both a tactical homage as well as a postmodern pastiche. From the prophetic preacher to the swindling banker, or the harlot with a heart of gold and the identity crisis of the American Indian Christian convert -- the series takes advantage of seasonal storytelling in ways that provide deeper reflections on the historical influences that shaped the American Western's most common stereotypes. In order to avoid similar narrative trappings, Hell on Wheels frequently performs a soft reboot of its main cast and their roles inhabited during the railroad construction. This strategic narrative approach allows the writing team the opportunity to use the miscellaneous dimensions of western genre storytelling to keep the show from stagnating in its mission.

As a drama that emerged during the era of “Peak TV”, Hell on Wheels carries the burden of offering audiences something old in the form of a western and something new(-ish) to the genre in the form of long-form serialized storytelling. These goals put the series at odds with the rise in content production across the televisual spectrum. Staying on TV beyond a season or two was no small feat, especially because early in the show’s lifespan, it took time for the writers to find the right character rhythms and storytelling pacing. In some ways, the grim western doesn’t lend itself to the post-cable binge-watching experience. While the storytelling is nuanced and layered, episodes are reflective of slower pacing indicative to many westerns. An apt comparison might be that binge watching the slow grind of this series is like binge drinking corn liquor, the hard drink of choice for the roughnecks building this great railroad. Quite often, Hell on Wheels’ seasonal arcs fashion recurring opportunities to revisit and update the various genre forms in the Western’s history -- from the classical Western to the revisionist or “anti-Western”, from the overarching railroad story as a transformational journey to the smaller arcs rich in tropes and conventions fans and historians recognize and celebrate.

Season One Standout Special Features

Hell on Wheels producers lock and load a bevy of supplemental materials, rich insights for fans of the series or students studying the entertainment industry. In addition to standard highlight reels -- from episode recaps to inside the episode featurettes -- a number of behind the scenes specials bring into view how this low-rated series justifies its existence through the collective labor of love crafted by its diversely talented production staff.

Production staffers high and low reflect on the collective vision that goes into producing Hell on Wheels, management issues like maximizing location shoots on tribal lands in Canada, the parlor trick props that bring the railroad locomotive to life onscreen, and strategic wardrobe design signifying and visualizing nonverbal character development. One interesting aside is a closer look at the onset gunsmith-historian. This individual works to provide authentic firearms true to the period while also searching for lesser-used pistols and rifles that add aesthetic value as well as character distinction. Overall, recurring producer interviews highlight the attention to detail given to bring this historically dehumanizing yet inspirational traveling labor encampment to life.

No Filter Trimmings

While most supplemental materials feature a “produced” effect onscreen, some extras content has the raw feel of random footage tossed together with no linear intent. There's no method to its organization and the film quality ranges from what feels like something shot on a personal cell phone or digital video camera use to production cameras complete with lens filters and color saturation. Many collaged shots are shots of shots, cameras behind cameras, perhaps meant to convey a film school production staffer’s perspective or even framing communal process behind the frame that brings the story to life.

While not necessarily aesthetically entertaining to the lay audience, aspiring video technicians will gain a larger sense of scale and scope as to the varied burdens that go into each production detail. For example, the tracking shot motions of camera operators, the space necessary to staff large crane shots, the last-minute makeup and prosthetic touchups that require constant attention to detail in order to provide consistency and authenticity to the grit and grime and intense Western violence onscreen, as well as insights into procedures that create safety and efficiency on set. In other words, these loose trimmings reveal the un-magical side that collectively conjures Hollywood magic.

Season Two Standout Special Features

The Hell on Wheels season two set features several similar extras but also a few new additives. The standout feature is a set tour given by Cullen Bohannon himself, actor Anson Mount. Mount brings a familiarity to his time on the set while also attempting to identify the hard work and craftsmanship that goes into the well-constructed town sets and props. He starts with a trip to the bar; answering frequent fan questions concerning what exactly prop masters fill into said whiskey bottles.

The “Making Of” featurette on season two discs explores several of the massive set piece undertakings that require months of pre-production labor. Interviews and conversations with various set producers showcase the compound complexities for both producing ongoing television while also essentially manufacturing a small town and countryside worth of interior/exterior sets for mostly outdoor location shooting. One takeaway from the combined perspectives underscores the tension to keep the TV narrative flowing all the while updating and re-fashioning new locations out of the existing landscape accessed to shoot on.

In particular, the showing and telling of the efforts to recreate the bridge extending over gorge set piece for season two offers incredible insights into various collaborative processes like scouting, set design, photography and manipulation of the landscape. The “Making Of” special gives audiences a standout peak into season two but also a deeper appreciate for how the Hell on Wheels experience comes together.

Season Three Standout Special Features

Season three extra include an inside look at Country Music icon Charlie Daniels, a western fan and collaborator for the show with his song, “Hell on Strings”. This is not the only musical feature, with a close look at the post-slavery spiritual “I’m gonna build me a home”, which benefits from the voice talents and interview insights of actor-musician Common as well as actor Dohn Noorwood. There is a great appreciation in the sharing of the process of producing the voice recordings and the directorial gravitas encouraged between the recording artists and directors. The disc also includes a brief set tour with actor Common in his final full season as a series regular.

As a through line to the complete series disc set, the heart of the special features spanning all of the seasons belongs to a focus on the behind the scenes artists that pull together toward a collaborative vision. The emphasis on set decorators, carpenters, and skilled laborers gives the special features offered in this series set its heart. Director of Photography Marvin Rush imparts his vision for making “a show that looks like a classic painting” while incorporating advanced digital camerawork, or as he puts it, “technology in service of storytelling.”

Season Four Standout Special Features

With season four, production values markedly increase in quality on the special features disc while the quality of content dips in depth. Visually, the special features mark an improvement over the raw splicing and unkempt color palette of earlier seasons. There also seems to be a degree of self-awareness within the supplemental content, and yet at the same time, the polished look is in direct contrast to produced content as empty filler. The main examples of this come from separate “On the set” features with actors Colm Meaney and Jake Weber. The featurettes provide very little insight into the process of translating characters to the screen, the actors’ methods, or the production strategies that coordinate both.

Anson Mount does narrative an updated set tour of “Cheyenne, Wyoming” with Art Director Bill Ives. The impressive amount of world-building put into season four helps sell the narrative of progress via Westward Expansion. Mount seems to genuinely care for the intricate set details and many labors of love that help shape Hell on Wheels. While his character Cullen Bohannon may be worse for wear and rough around the edges, but Mount does not try to overwhelm the tour. Instead, he emits thoughtfulness comparable to a home interior design host.

Season Five Standout Special Features

The Season Five supplemental materials are separated into the Season 5, Volume 1/Volume 2 half-seasons. This production design mimics how distributor company AMC and show producers followed the distribution pattern of critical darlings Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In practice, the 14-episode final season was split into two 7-episode mini-seasons for original broadcast. Following the mid-'00s success of HBO’s The Sopranos, the split season strategy serves the purpose of extending the show’s life in order to maximize possible awards recognition, while also generating more economic and cultural currency through varied media paratexts like press coverage, online reviews and recaps, fan discourse, merchandising opportunities, and so on.

Season five extras mirror the pattern set forth by previous seasons, including the almost obligatory set tour with Anson Mount, “Inside the Episodes” shorts on all episodes (a real strength that benefits audiences looking to clarify character motivations and narrative interpretations), the brief but essential featurette “How the Chinese Built America”, another short on the final season theme concerning the “Golden Spike” that marked the railroad’s completion, and a “Wrap Up” special that provides closure while celebrating the show’s achievements.

Packaging and Presentation

The overall packaging design is perhaps the most disappointing element in the Hell on Wheels: The Complete Series set. Neither the DVD nor the Bluray box sets (both assessed for this review) were given the five-star treatment. This is a significant downgrade from AMC’s alternate complete series box sets: from Mad Men’s set accompanied with drinking tumblers (or an earlier single season that featured a mini folded white dress shirt) to Breaking Bad’s epic 50-gallon drum container complete with matchbooks for Saul Goodman or a mini-cooking apron to Los Pollos Hermanos. The product design put into similar AMC dramas plays to fan fervor with recognizable Easter eggs as collectible as the discs themselves. And especially for consumers of the Streaming Age, these material artifacts that accompany box sets represent a strategic selling point unto themselves.

Given Hell on Wheels’ devoted but niche fan base, the box set packaging would have greatly benefitted from any number of possible add-ons, including (and these suggestions are original to this review): a train-shaped box resembling Durant’s bourgeois caboose, a mock railroad tie or ‘Golden Spike’, Elam’s black ten gallon hat with feather, a faux miniature bottle of corn liquor or perhaps even a box set in the form of a cylindrical bourbon barrel (the historically accurate mode of whiskey transportation of that era). Given the nostalgia that fuels much of the history and celebration of the American western in both historical and literary genre forms, symbolic souvenirs would surely have elevated this western’s status just in time for the holiday gifting season.

Alas, the packaging and presentation represent the weakest element of the Hell on Wheels: The Complete Series experience. Both packaging designs submitted for review represent watered down reminders of what could have been. Like the whiskey stretched thin in so many saloons, consumers and fans might be left feeling less inclined to invest the $82-$100 base price point. Like the show itself, which was relegated to the TV cemetery of Saturday evenings in its final stretch of seasons, the box set is a step down by comparison. As the ultimate consolation prize, fans can take solace that unlike HBO’s Deadwood, AMC’s anti-western was at least gifted the budgetary lifeline to complete its narrative mission.


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